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A viewpoint by Thomas D. Elias: GOP changes miss the point

October 23, 2001

California's Republican Party plainly hopes the sky-high approval ratings President Bush now draws will last until next fall and somehow translate into the election victory they have not seen since the early 1990s.

But such crisis-driven ratings don't usually last long, as Bush's father learned after the Gulf War. So the California GOP will likely have to solve its own internal problems before it can again become a viable force.

Yet the decade-long death wish of the state GOP is as plain as ever, now manifesting itself in the party's new reorganization agreement. This, of course, is an organization that hasn't won a top-of-the-ticket race since 1994 and hasn't won a U.S. Senate seat since 1988.

The new intra-party agreement is essentially a power-sharing pact between the far-right forces that have dominated the California GOP to its extreme detriment since the early 1990s and the most prominent California allies of President Bush, who are not quite so ultra-conservative.

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It does nothing to address the platform planks and policy positions that so alienated many moderate Republican women voters, causing them to vote Democratic en masse in the last few elections.

Neither side in the intra-party bargaining, it must be noted, can lay claim to much expertise at winning elections. The extreme conservatives who have held major party offices since the early '90s steered the GOP into near-extinct status in the state Legislature and lost all but one statewide office to the Democrats during the last election cycle.

Similarly, the Bush people, led by the president's 2000 state campaign chairman, Los Angeles lawyer/financier Gerald Parsky, managed to lose California for their man by more than 1.5 million votes even though they spent many millions of dollars and opponent Al Gore spent virtually no money here during the campaign.

Now Parsky and rightist party Chairman Shawn Steel propose to begin fixing matters by creating a new party operations committee, setting up eight regional chairs around the state and giving big party donors one seat on the party's board of directors.

These changes avoided a fight that figured to embarrass both sides. A set of somewhat more ambitious changes was put forward by a Parsky-chaired committee in August and a bitter fight over them might have occurred at the party's scheduled Sept. 14 state convention, if the convention had come off.

The Bush faction was to be joined in this fight by moderate Republicans, mostly women, who saw backing the Bushites as a way to spank the right-wingers they feel have hijacked their party. Since the moderates fell only 80 votes short of a successful rebellion against the ultra-conservatives when party officers were elected last year, the current leadership realized it might be in trouble if there were no compromise with Bush's loyalists.

The deal they reached probably means there will be no controversial votes when the state party convenes Oct. 27 at a hotel near Los Angeles International Airport, the date and location changed after the September terror attacks on America.

But it will not change the firmly anti-abortion and anti-gun control planks that have proven so costly at election times. Many Republicans realize those planks have more to do with their losses than the vaunted recruiting of Latino voters by the Democratic Party. Said consultant Dan Schnur, a former press secretary to ex-Gov. Pete Wilson who helped organize the current campaign of gubernatorial candidate Richard Riordan, the former Los Angeles mayor: "Alienating Latinos wasn't the reason 1.3 million Republican women voted for Gray Davis for governor in 1998. It was those platform planks and the fact that (losing GOP candidate) Dan Lungren was devoted to them."

But the platform planks will not change prior to next year's election, regardless of some internal reorganization.

"Our platform remains anti-abortion and anti-gun control, right in line with the national platform," said Steel. "It won't even be voted on until the winter 2004 state party convention."

The reorganization also left Steel the power to make appointments to all party committees.

Some Republicans believe it was vital to wrest at least a little intra-party power from the ultra-rightists. But the agreed change won't help anyone but the somewhat-rightist Bushites. Meanwhile, both those elements are determined to maintain their party's platform positions no matter how suicidal this may be to their election chances next year. Which is why the new internal Republican changes will do little to alter the public face of a party that most voters haven't much cared for in years.

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